My day of luxury at The Peninsula Chicago began two weeks previously, when I, good corporate citizen that I am, sniffed around for a bargain room rate.
Calling the hotel directly got me a quote of $295 for a weekend night. Not bad for a hotel ranked one of the best in the country, but surely I could do better on the Internet, right?
Actually, for the most part I couldn't. A few sites matched that $295 rate. One was a little higher; another was much higher. But I hit the jackpot at Quikbook.com, which got me into the Peninsula for a rock-bottom $195.
Reserving via Internet did mean no personal touches from the reservationist. No pop-up boxes inquired as to whether this were a special occasion, or if I had any special requests. On the other hand, I saved enough money for a one-hour massage.
But that's skipping ahead.
My wife and I pulled up to the Superior Street entrance right at 12:30 p.m. A bellman fairly leaped to the car to greet us, and instantly set to retrieving our bags. Within a minute we had a claim ticket for the car and one for our bags; the bellman reconfirmed with me the number of pieces he was checking.
As we approached the revolving door, it magically began spinning for us, thanks to a fellow on the inside who apparently gives the doors that inertia-breaking first shove whenever people approach. The same person pointed--with white-gloved finger, no less--the way to the elevator.
Alighting on the 12th floor, we walked down a long and handsome corridor to the concierge desk, and just beyond that, the front desk. There are no overt security checks, but anyone wishing to access the room elevators must pass both stations, not to mention the friendly folk at street level.
We checked in at the front desk, and though check-in officially is at 3 p.m., our room was ready. My coy inquiry as to upgrade possibilities may have been too subtle, or perhaps all the suites were booked. The clerk noted that we had reserved a room with two double beds, but he quickly found us a room with a single king bed.
We were directed, not escorted, to our room, and after an awkward moment when I slid my key card into another room's slot, we strolled in. It was fabulous. Big, comfy bed, a sofa with coffee table and a large armoire that held the TV, mini bar, glassware, bagged snacks and a safe. On the other side of the room was a good-sized desk with an inlaid leather pad. One drawer was perfectly organized with paper, envelopes, paper clips, eraser and rubber bands; the drawer below contained a fax machine (we were given the number when we checked in). The center drawer held the hotel directory and a cable to connect our laptop (well, we might have brought one) to the high-speed data port. On top of the desk was a card spelling out the phone charges. They seemed a mite high (though local calls were free), but at least you knew exactly what the tariff would be.
A dressing area with lots of drawers, a padded bench and mirror separated the sleeping quarters from the bathroom, which had double doors. The bathroom itself was a study in polished stone, on the floors, countertops and tub surround. The shower stall and water closet were glass enclosed. The tub was deep, ideal for soaking, and featured a TV screen and hands-free telephone. By the sink were the usual goodies--soap, shampoo, conditioner, lotion, bath gel, nail kit--by Molton Brown of London. Good stuff, and plenty of it.
My favorite feature of the room was the console atop one of the nightstands, which was sort of like the command center of the spaceship Enterprise, only with more buttons. This gadget contained the phone, of course, but it had buttons to control the heat and light levels as well (just about every light in the room can be dimmed). Another set of buttons controlled the radio; a pullout menu listed the 20 or so pre-programmed stations--not by call letters, which presumably would mean nothing to an out-of-towner, but by format (adult contemporary, urban contemporary, country, talk).
The time and date are displayed on the console, but with the touch of a button you can scroll through more than a dozen cities to learn what the time is there. And there's one button--the last you hit at night--that makes every light in the room do a three-second fade to black.
My second favorite feature of the room was the generous number of places to put things. There are horizontal surfaces everywhere, including an extra shelf in the bathroom, spots in the dressing area--even the desk, which is large, had an extra pull-out shelf. I'm the sort of traveler who puts all his carry-around stuff--keys, room cards, wallet, tissues, lip balm, change, emergency flashlight, sunglasses--on the nightstand. No problem in this room, though I did claim the bedside without the million-function console.
Twelve minutes after we entered our room, the bags arrived. The bellman set down our bags, hung our coats in the closet (equipped with plenty of wood hangers, huge bathrobes--like terrycloth bedspreads with sleeves--and matching slippers) and demonstrated everything in the room we hadn't yet figured out. It was now time for lunch, which we ate in The Lobby, the casual dining spot in the middle of the hotel lobby. Though it was on the late side for lunch, we got red-carpet treatment as we munched our way through an international menu that includes a sashimi-sushi platter (excellent) and an oddity called a Beijing duck croque monsieur (a hot griddled sandwich stuffed with cheese and Chinese-style barbecued duck) that was absolutely delicious.
We then wandered into the spa, which is on the hotel's 20th floor. We walked through the frosted glass doors and were greeted immediately--as guests, not interlopers. We happily took the escorted tour of the weight/exercise room, the pool, the locker room and massage rooms. The latter piqued my wife's curiosity, so we inquired about a massage. Booked solid, we were told, though tomorrow afternoon might be available. That was no good for us, but the receptionist put us on a wait list. "There are cancellations all the time," she said hopefully.
We returned to our room to change into gym togs, but before we could lace our sneakers the phone rang. There was a cancellation, and we--well, Paula--were all set.
We had a little time to kill, but passed on afternoon tea in The Lobby, though we were intrigued to learn there is a vegan tea available. Instead we hit the exercise room, a gorgeous space with oak floors and floor-to-ceiling views of the Water Tower, the Museum of Contemporary Art and the lake. (I waved to my colleague bunking at the Ritz-Carlton, but I don't think he saw me.) Plus a wide array of treadmills, elliptical machines and stair climbers, most equipped with individual TVs (clean headphones are on a nearby shelf), and all manner of weight machines, free weights, exercise mats and related goodies.
When Paula left for her rubdown, I sneaked down to the concierge desk to arrange a little surprise. (Part of our assignment was to put the concierge staff through its paces, which we'll evaluate in detail in this week's Friday section.) When Paula returned to the room I had a bubble bath drawn, scented candles around the tub and a bottle of champagne in an ice bucket, all of which set me back about $90.